I am writing from a dark memory of a time when young people did not do what you do today. I was a teenager in the nineties when the mere mention of politics, or indeed anything that took place out of the classroom or the charts, was considered worse than discussing homework. In 1997 I was 14 and, I now regret to say, very excited about Labour's victory - my classmates could not tell the difference between this and "fancying Tony Blair". To speak up about things that happened outside one's life was "sad". It was just not done.
So I suppose, if we have one thing to thank the Labour government for, it was annoying people enough to make protest a do-able thing. Or, perhaps the introduction of the Internet. Or even better education. Who knows?
I don't know why you are doing things that my generation was too cowardly to do. But well done, and for God's sake don't stop. Democracy is precious, and easy to lose. (I later went on to live in Spain, but abstained from voting for student leaders because I didn't understand enough of the language to make a choice. I didn't feel I had the right to bias the voting with an uninformed opinion. To my fellow students, whose parents probably remembered Franco, my not voting was shocking and distasteful, letting down of a hard-won value.)
I notice you're having to put up with the usual remarks - "these kids are too young to be out of school", "they just wanted to bunk off and have a fun day out", "it's just £7.50 a week once you're rich anyway", and so on.
Why go to school other than to prepare yourselves for the world? Not just to be a consumer, not just to get a job: but to be part of society, to change the world for the better, for nobody else will if you do not. As well as to partake in the greatest joy I know - that of knowledge. As a professor of teaching pointed out to a group of trainee teachers, there are only three groups of people who we tell where to go: criminals; the insane; and children. But you are not in school simply to get you out of the way until you're a grown-up. I know if often feels that way, and that's what you've got to fight. Your education is for you, and for other people too. It is not only your right but your responsibility to fight for it. To those who did - I am so proud of you!
It may be true that the fees would not, in theory, prevent anyone from going to university (the BBC page has a good set of questions and answers you should check out). The MP Tom Watson, and those who agreed with him, got a lot of kicking for "misrepresenting" the situation by pointing out that, if he saved £100 a month for his 5-year-old son, that would still not pay his tuition fees, for they are not upfront. A loan hangs around your neck for many, many years; but it's still better than paying upfront. No, what's going on here is a subtler but pernicious ideology.
Even before it's time to apply, there'd be the worry whilst growing up about whether or not it's worth going anyway. "It won't help you earn back the money you'd spend on it. Such-and-such went into banking without a degree and is now earning so-and-so." It's an off-putter from the start, especially for poorer families. Incentives for poorer students (see that BBC link) sound good but might create a divide, turn it into a situation of charity, and also would not help students whose parents of higher incomes discourage or refuse to help their offspring who want to learn (yes, there are those).
And during, the thing itself: it's become a market. Introduce the market and what matters is money, not education itself. Education becomes a "product", your degree is something you've bought, no longer a labour of love. And it must be paid for in the end. So if you never earn that £21,000 a year, then what? Who does pay? Would your course leaders spend their time preparing you for jobs that do earn this figure, and perhaps throw you out if you're likely to end up on a job that pays less? And what about the marketplace atmosphere itself: as businesses compete, would universities have to work against each other rather than together? Would the corporate branding, the package, the adverts to try and "sell", become the focus rather than what's inside them? More simply: would people concentrate on what looks good rather than on what's to learn, and learning, as a result, suffer? It's hard for a non-economist like me to explain. Perhaps some of you economics students can tell me whether or not I'm right. My feeling is this. We have the National Health Service and I'm bloody proud of it. We do not treat people on the basis of whether or not they have money. A sick person is a human, and a normal human helps another person; end of story. Markets interfere with straight humanity from the heart. I wanted to be a teacher and give education as a gift - no, not even that, for child-rearing is not a gift but something a mother simply does, and that's how I saw learning.
Maybe this is a bad patch before we reach a very different future. Have you noticed those occasional articles about virtual schools and everyone learning online anyway? Maybe that's what'll happen; maybe university will one day no longer be about leaving home. The cost of accommodation and living has risen too. I lived in a cheap hall which I thought was part of the experience; but these were knocked down one by one and more and more students around me spoke snobbishly of their expensive quarters, expressing horror at the idea of sharing a bathroom. Well, these things do have to be paid for. That should be a choice; but what if the cheap choice is no longer available? Tuition fees aren't the only thing to worry about. Actually, going back to myself again (and I probably seem pretty ancient to many of you!), I noticed the lecturers mourning how their courses had to become easier and easier, and only an MSc would be taken seriously, and thought - for goodness sake, university just seems to be a pampered boarding school. That probably is a waste of your time.
But back to this week. Whether your worry is education cuts, or tuition fees, and whatever people think about those: well done. You have to do two things to really make a difference: one is to check the facts, and the other is to make your voice heard. If you only do the former, no amount of learning will make any difference. If you only do the latter, people will continue to get things wrong. (Actually, that'll happen even if you do both, but you know what I mean.)
I want to give some special well dones now, but please don't feel miffed if you simply didn't have the opportunity to do anything heroic; these things often come to you by accident.
I want to especially congratulate these brave girls. The Guardian shows the van being damaged, but the BBC caught this photo, and I do recommend a look through this entire photostream. I notice they've been insulted as much as anyone: "The van had already been smashed up, what are these silly little girls going to do ? Turn back time?" Sadly, the idiots in your classroom may remain idiots for life; believe me, grown-ups can be unutterably stupid too. This grown-up missed your point, I think. You were standing up for peace and responsibility at your own risk. You were being human shields; you made an inexpressably important gesture.
Well said, young lady.
"If they smash it up, it just proves the point that teenagers are out here today for violence," said one of the girls amid the chaos, her eyes darting left and right looking for the next vandal. "If we let the government portray us as violent then there is no way they are going to listen to us."
After watching videos like this, I guess many of you will, understandably, distrust the police for life. Wasn't there supposed to be a time when they wore tall funny-shaped helmets and were helpful, pulling boys' heads out form park railings? (No, I wasn't around then, but I've read about them in books.) I hope things like this won't lead to a complete collapse of any trust between those with authority and those without. That won't get the country or education anywhere. But this is largely for authority to decide. Yes, there certainly were from the sounds of things a few morons and violent people at the protests, who ruined your cause and did nobody any favours but the paranoid. Make it clear those were not the majority.
Young and old learners, students, school pupils, all those who want to learn - I've been reading article after article of what you've been doing. I'm smiling at the BBC's list of your activities around the country, and am intrigued at the UCL takeover (Update: They have a fantastic blog, do check them out!). Honestly, when I was your age I'd given up on my peers ever getting off their navy-blue-skirted bottoms and doing a thing - you have raised the profile of humanity. (Did you know that Paul Lockhart describes you as "the ones most often blamed and least often heard?") But most of all I'm moved by the words of Laurie Penny, who was in the kettle with you and wrote in the Guardian and the New Statesman. I was scared for your welfare, yes. I wish I'd been able to get to you all with food and drink and warmth, not to mention miraculous toilets and medication for those in need. It horrifies me to think of you being out there for so long, essentially deprived of things even a prisoner cannot legally be denied. The humiliation for some, as well as the cold and hunger and other discomfort, must have been terrible. But even then a lad told Laurie Penny not to add a book to the fire to keep you warm, because you're not Nazis. Let safety and comfort be secondary. You knew that, and I expect many of you would do it again.
As a last resort. If you can't go to university, don't stop learning. Something has happened which I hate, and that is the all-or-nothing situation all learners are in: you cannot leave school early, as some people want to do as much as others want to stay, but once you have, that's it. Adult education is very difficult to get into and often terribly expensive. But people have been doing something long before David Cameron came up with his "big society" ideas: they've been learning informally, alone, or together, online. I run Cardiff Skeptics in the Pub and the Galaxy Zoo Forum, both of which are essentially movements for people to discover things together. (Obviously what I say here is from me alone, not from either of these movements. We grown-ups have to clarify these things for each other's benefit.) You can be in on either of these - young Rhys Morgan is a 16-year-old skeptic, and we have young people who learn to classify galaxies and contribute to real science that goes in papers. There are many, many movements like this, peaceful organisations, cheerful groups of people whose brains are filling with beautiful things and who can do a great many things as a result. You'll be welcomed in. If they have to take over education for a time, that's not a good outcome, but it's better than nothing.
Let's all do what we can, our different things, to keep education going.
Much love and praise from Alice, who wanted to be a teacher, and hopes she can be a teacher in other ways.